Between the World and Me is a brief autobiography, from the author’s early childhood to present-day adulthood, although it is marketed as a series of letters to his fifteen-year-old son about race in America. That’s a brilliant device, for it allows Coates to describe things about race (such as the legacy of slavery) that are thumpingly obvious, without seeming to condescend to ignorant readers. I think that’s one reason the book has caught the public imagination as well as it has.
However, as an autobiography, especially one this short, it is hardly filled with gripping drama. Coates was deeply influenced, as I was, by The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But Coates is not Malcolm X and did not live that sort of life in times like those. Coates is an ordinary guy who has a poet’s way with words, a courageous honesty, and a meditative temperament, but he is not a guy who has led a particularly extraordinary life. Nevertheless, the story of his life-experience will be revelatory for those who believe they are white and who have never read James Baldwin, Malcolm X, or Claude Brown, and for that insight alone the book is a must-read and deserves every ounce of praise it has received.
America’s racial history and the black experience, as described by Coates, is heartbreaking for anyone with a heart, and deeply frustrating for anyone with a conscience. As a heartfelt wail, this book is moving.
The opening of the book, the first 25 pages or so, is stunning in its poetic reflections on race. The last 25 pages, lamenting our destruction of the planet, are compelling but off point. The middle is a mildly interesting account of Coates’ life, which contains many gems worth panning for.
“The question is not whether Lincoln truly meant ‘government of the people’ but what our country has, throughout its history taken the political term ‘people’ to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean me.”
“But race is the child of racism, not the father.”
“Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart…”
“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body….The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”
“In accepting both the chaos of history and the fact of my total end, I was freed to truly consider how I wished to live – specifically, how do I live free in this black body?”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi (2015). Between the World and Me. New York: Penguin/Random-Spiegel & Grau, 176 pp.